Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Is iTunes changing the way 20-somethings watch TV?


by Dr. Macenstein

A quick look at the top TV programs sold on iTunes shows quite a disparity between America’s top shows according to Nielsen and what the average iTunes user is watching. For instance, the TV show LOST, once a media darling, has struggled this season, and often does not make it into the top 20 shows of the week. However, LOST does consistently well in the iTunes rankings, and this week occupies slots 1, 4, and 17 as of this writing. Battlestar Galactica (iTunes ranked 3, and 11) and South Park (iTunes ranked 7, 8, and 12) both fail to crack the Top 20 cable shows each week, and consistently lose out to shows such as The Fairly Odd Parents and reruns of House and Spongebob Squarepants. The FOX shows 24 (iTunes ranked 2, and 10) and Prison Break (iTunes ranked 6) do not appear in Nielsen’s Top 10 either.

So why are these shows huge hits on iTunes at $1.99 an episode when many of these shows can’t attract viewers for FREE on broadcast TV? Simple. Younger viewers, college students, largely, are finding iTunes’ “On-Demand” style of television viewing fits their hectic schedule better than appointment television. 20-year-old Jeff, a full time college student at Illinois State University, explains his situation; “Most of my friends and I actually end up waiting for the DVD box sets of a show to come out, and then we watch them in marathon sit-down sessions. We don’t have the kind of schedules where we can dedicate a specific block of time every week and say we’ll be there [to watch a show]”.

Perhaps this is the reason why so many of the highly rated shows sold on iTunes are of the LOST, Heroes, 24, and Prison Break variety, where there is one long-reaching story arc that needs to be followed. People with hectic schedules who are likely to miss an episode of such a show will be “Lost” when they try to watch the next week’s episode. By purchasing an episode on iTunes, they don’t have to be back in their dorm room at 10 PM on a Wednesday, they can watch it on the way to (or even IN) class.

“At home my parents have Tivo,” says Mark, also at Illinois. “We kind of use iTunes as a Tivo substitute here, we all put in money towards a season, and then we watch the shows together when we get a chance.”

What will be interesting to see is how the iTunes model will eventually affect these 20-somethings’ viewing habits as they get older. Software and computer makers like Apple and Microsoft constantly vie to get their products into as many school classrooms as possible, as early as possible in a child’s development. They know that the more comfortable children get using a specific brand of technology, the more likely they are to continue to seek out that familiar brand as they get older. The same thing applies to this new generation of On-Demand TV watchers. Whether through the “low-tech”method of waiting for DVD box sets to be released, or the instant gratification of the iTunes Store, it looks like viewing habits are being molded.

“Almost all of my friends have a video iPod now,” says Sara, a Sophomore at Rutgers University in NJ. “We have a thing now where each of us on our floor chooses a show we want, and then we share it. I’ve gotten used to watching shows on the tiny screen in bed or even walking between classes. It’s pretty cool.”